Thursday, October 29, 2009

Are They Really Full?

In his guest post earlier this week, TwinToddlersDad wrote about his family's challenges in applying Ellyn Satter's division of responsibility model. One of TwinToddlersDad and Mom's struggles was knowing whether are not their children's food refusals were based on their truly being full or merely being dissatisfied with their food choices. I completely agree with TwinToddlersDad that it can be difficult, and sometimes even impossible, to truly know the motivation behind our children's every behavior. But I don't think that as parents we have to get it right every single time. We should be striving to get it right more times than not and to be open to making corrections when we realize we got it wrong.

I believe that our kids don't know their own motivations all the time either. It's our job as parents to help guide our children to uncover their motivations and understand their behaviors over time. One of the things I love about the division of responsibility is that it provides a model for allowing some of that learning to take place. Children need the opportunity to learn their bodies ~ to learn what it feels like to be full and hungry. They won't learn as well if they are frequently told how much to eat. Will they make mistakes sometimes? Absolutely. It's part of the learning process.

TwinToddlersDad points out accurately that parents fear leaving their children hungry. Parents also have fears that their children haven't eaten enough, that they won't grow adequately, that their health will be affected, that they make wake up in the middle of the night hungry, and many other food- and eating-related fears. I would guess that these fears are based on instinct and human survival. But in most cases, we can take a step back and make a realistic assessment. Most (but unfortunately not all) Americans have adequate access to food. Most children (but again, unfortunately not all) do not have significant nutritional deficits or growth disorders. So most parents realistically do not need to let these fears guide their parenting decisions. If our generally well-fed, typically growing, healthy child goes to bed hungry one night, what's the worst that can happen?

There is also a risk in not letting it happen. By not giving our children the opportunity to learn whether they are full or not without our interference, we can be putting them at risk for poor management of their eating and weight as they get older. Our nation's growing obesity epidemic is likely influenced by poor body awareness and food regulation skills.

I know from personal experience that it can be difficult to put aside those fears and worries about related to our children's eating. But I encourage you to try. Reframe those worries into opportunities for learning and growth and see what happens over time.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Two Hungry Monkeys and Challenges in Teaching them Division of Responsibility

Photo:, all rights reserved

This past summer I had the pleasure of connecting with TwinToddlersDad on Twitter. He writes a science-driven, real-life toddler nutrition blog at In the guest post he asked me to write on his blog, I wrote about family meals and tips for feeding toddlers. One of my tips was to understand and apply Ellyn Satter's model of the division of responsibility in feeding. It has been a few months now and TwinToddlersDad and Mom have been attempting to apply the model to their adorable young twins. The article below is written by TwinToddlersDad about his experience. I really admire his honesty in writing about the challenges his family has faced, and I'm sure these challenges are shared by many other parents. In future Dinner Together blog posts, I will be sure to share some suggestions for strategies to consider to overcome some of the obstacles parents face in trying to apply the division of responsibility model.

I am honored to write a guest post for Dr. Kathleen Cuneo’s Dinner Together blog. I first learned about the concept of division of responsibility for feeding children through her post The Power of Family Meals: Tips for Feeding Toddlers which she wrote for my own toddler nutrition blog. It is a very intriguing idea. Pioneered by Registered Dietitian Ellyn Satter, it has found strong support among nutrition experts because of its simplicity, elegance and effectiveness in shaping the child’s eating habits.

Simply put, division of responsibility means parents are responsible for what, when and where and the child is responsible for how much and whether. Satter advises parents to trust their child’s natural instinct to eat when needed and stop eating when full. If done right and consistently, she confidently suggests that children will learn to eat the food their parents eat, they will grow predictably and they will learn to behave well at the table.

Sounds good, you say as you make a resolution to give it a try. We did the same but we had no idea how challenging it would turn out to be in real life! Especially if you have to deal with two little monkeys at the same age with very different personalities! We are not giving up though, but I should tell you that progress so far is slow.

In this post, I want to share with you some of our challenges in implementing this idea. I would love to hear about your experiences and tips for what has worked for you.

Can’t be sure if they are really full

A parent’s worst fear is to leave her child hungry after dinner. Since young toddler children are not very good at expressing their feelings, it is not easy to read their cues. One moment they can refuse to eat but the very next they may come back to the table asking for more! If they continue to refuse whatever you offer them, you can’t be sure if it is because they are full or because they don’t like their options.

We try to offer whatever we have prepared for ourselves at dinner. But we also keep some of their favorites handy to make sure they will at least eat something. We do not offer dessert as a reward to finish their meal and we do not force them to wipe their plate clean before they can leave the table.

They are not ready to eat at your dinner time

Maybe it is because you gave them a light snack on the way home from Daycare. Or maybe they are just not in the mood to eat and want to continue playing. As busy parents, we are constantly watching the clock. It’s time for dinner, it’s time to go up to get clean, it’s story time and then it’s time for bed. We want to establish a routine to make things predictable and simplify our life.
But guess what! Toddlers don’t operate by the clock. They don’t have a sense of space and time. They live in the moment and naturally resist your attempt to make them do the next thing on the schedule. It is a delicate balance between imposing a structure and waiting for them to make a choice to eat.

We set the table at our regular time and ask them if they want to join us. If they do, that’s fine but we try not to force them if they don’t appear to be hungry. We simply finish our dinner and let them come to the table later if that is what they want.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t!

They are distracted by TV

Before we had our twins, we never had the TV on during dinner. It was our time to catch up with each other since we were both gone the whole day. But now, the TV is constantly on when we bring them from Daycare because they like to watch their favorite shows like Dora, Diego, Little Einsteins, Wonder Pets, Barney and High 5. My son loves to watch his train DVD’s while my daughter prefers these On Demand shows or her Princess DVD’s.

On one hand it is nice to have them go to separate rooms to watch their shows and leave the two of us alone. But then, it is also a problem to have them come to the dinner table when we are ready to eat. Worse still, they try to bring the food in front of the TV so they can continue watching.

We have tried to make them turn the TV off before dinner. Again, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t!

They are too tired at the end of the day

One reason toddlers may not want to eat is because they are too tired and they simply don’t realize they are hungry. Maybe they didn’t take a nap or maybe they played too hard with daddy when they got home! Their mood can change suddenly because of exhaustion. In that case, you will likely have a huge tantrum on your hands if you try to force them to eat with you.

We try to get them to nibble on something, maybe their favorite snack before trying to bring them to the table. Or we offer the snack side by side with the regular dinner foods.

You can’t resist anymore and give in

You have had a long, stressful day. You are tired and just want to get it over with! You don’t have enough patience to go into a cat-and-mouse game with your child at dinner time. In those moments, it is easy to give in and let them nibble on anything they want. In our case, it is usually sweet stuff and chocolate for our son and cheesy snacks for our daughter. If they fill themselves with these snacks, there is no way they will sit with you at the dinner table.

It has happened to us many times and I am sure you too have found yourself in a similar situation. We try not to let it make us feel guilty. We are not trying to raise perfect children, if there is such a thing! We simply move on and try another day.

I think it is hard for parents to accept Satter’s division of responsibility as a simple black-and-white contract with their child. You do this as a parent, and they will do that as a child and magically they will turn into well-behaved children at the dinner table. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Feed with love and respect, have courage to face your emotions, and don’t feel guilty if it doesn’t work. Just keep trying and don’t give up. On good days, it is a lot of fun playing with them and enjoying our dinner as a family. Here are a couple of posts I have written on how to make dinner time a fun experience for them:
My favorite food is (blank)
Play is the secret ingredient of success at mealtime
What has worked for you? What has been your challenge? I would love to hear your comments!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

New Website Launch

I'm very excited to announce that I have launched a new website. In addition to my work with Dinner Together, I have developed some new programs and services. At Dinner Together, I have always believed that how we approach feeding our children is a huge part of parenting. But we all know that there is much more to parenting than feeding.

My new programs will empower parents to feel more confident in their ability to raise compassionate, resilient, and successful children. Visit to learn more about these new programs and to get my free report, "30 Things You Can Do To Raise Self-Confident, Compassionate Children."

I'm really excited about this and look forward to connecting with you - and helping you to connect with your children. So please help me spread the word to other parents (and grandparents) with young children.

Monday, October 12, 2009

"Iron Chef" As A Feeding Strategy?

Weekend lunches are my least favorite meals to make. I can easily tune into how some people must feel about making dinner because I have very little interest in making lunch, especially on the weekends. I use lots of strategies (sign up for my newsletter at for monthly tips and strategies) to get dinner on the table (e.g., planning ahead, preparing ahead, etc.) and to get us all together to sit down for dinner together as often as possible. But my attitude about lunch on the weekend is much less impressive. I only plan lunch if we're having company and we rarely sit down together as a family to eat lunch. My advice to my kids at lunchtime is often something like, "See what we have and get yourself something."

So this Saturday, my youngest daughter made me smile with her response to my unimpressive directions to her about getting herself something for lunch. She asked me, "What's the secret ingredient?" I had no idea what she was talking about at first. She then clarified that she was going to pretend "Iron Chef," a show she's watched several times on the Food Network. So I said, "The secret ingredient is cheese." She set the kitchen timer (for 68 minutes!) and set off in a frenzy creating her lunch. She made herself a cream cheese sandwich, cut a few pieces of brie, and some Italian bread. When she asked me about how her "plating" looked, I told her I thought it needed some fruits or vegetables. She then set off to peel herself a carrot and cut it into chunks. She was very pleased with herself that she beat the clock with over 50 minutes to spare. She then sat and ate her lunch.

I don't generally recommend making games out of feeding, but this was a game that I really embraced. She took responsibility for her own eating. I probably violated the division of responsibility of feeding by neglecting to provide the "what" of my daughter's lunch. But I know that sometimes I need a break, and I bet I share that sentiment with a bunch of other moms. Since I take the job of figuring out the "what" of what my kids eat for the majority of their weekly meals, I don't feel too much guilt for my weekend lapses. Also, my daughter is almost 8 years old, and I'm happy to see her comfortable, happy, and a little independent in the kitchen. I also felt happy seeing her creativity expressing itself.

Have your kids ever surprised you in the kitchen? I'd love to hear any successes you've had in helping your kids find creativity and joy with food.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Family Dinners: Managing the Guilt

I read yesterday's New York Times article, "The Guilt-Trip Casserole," by Jan Hoffman with much interest. I'm always interested to read about the research on the benefits of family meals. I founded Dinner Together based on my knowledge of this research and my desire to help families overcome their obstacles to making frequent family meals a reality in their homes. Refer to my earlier post, "The 4 P's of Successful Family Meals," for some strategies for organizing family meals. Hoffman's article highlights the guilt that many parents feel in response to their struggles and shortcomings in gathering their families together nightly around the dinner table.

I'd like to take this chance to respond to a few of the issues Hoffman raises in the article.

Will eating five family dinners per week prevent your children from drinking alcohol and using drugs?
I am not so bold or naive as to make that claim. As was pointed out in the article, the research at this point is correlational and does not show that eating family dinners causes lower use of drugs and alcohol. I agree with Dr. Philip Cowan who was quoted in the article as saying that parents who can organize themselves to pull off the feat of frequent family meals are likely to produce children with good outcomes anyway. Further, I believe that parents can learn skills and strategies to better organize themselves so that they can improve on their abilities to "pull it off" more frequently.

Is eating dinner together the only way that parents can connect with their children and gain the benefits associated with frequent family meals?
Absolutely not. First of all, any meals counts. In addition, there are many ways to connect positively and spend quality time with your children. As for meaningful conversation, I have probably had just as many, if not more, meaningful conversations with my 14 year old in the car than at the table. One of the important functions the family meal serves is to provide a structured, regular opportunity for parents and children to share time together. Family members need a time that they can count on, that they know will be coming to have the opportunity to talk with each other.

Is there something special about the family meal that other shared activities might not address?
I would love to see more research in this area. I believe that other activities and family variables may be just as likely to be associated with lower risk of adolescent substance abuse and better child outcomes in academic and mental health domains. However, my gut tells me that the frequent family meals present a unique opportunity to influence child outcomes in the domains of nutrition, weight management and healthy eating habits. Witnessing healthy adult role models for eating and sharing and participating in a meal with family members are distinct experiences which can directly influence the relationship a child will develop with food.

Does a family meal have to be home-cooked?
I believe that the time together is more important than the food when defining a family meal. However, I think the quality of the food still bears importance. How often can a family meal regularly consist of take-out fast food without eventually affecting the physical health of family members? Generally, home-cooked meals are healthier.

So what do you think? Are you struggling with family meals and feeling guilty about it? What would help you?